A Parable

While driving through the country one day, my car began to run roughly — which made me nervous because I was far from home and far from any service stations. It gradually became worse. When my engine finally died, I was able to pull off to the side of the road somewhat. Unfortunately, I was not able to get fully off of the road and I was worried that in addition to breaking down, I was now also in danger of being hit by another car.

Now what do I do? I was now stranded in a strange far away place and in danger of being struck by another vehicle. I needed to accomplish two things:

Goal 1 – I needed someone to help me push my car off of the road completely so that I wouldn’t get hit.

Goal 2 – I needed a mechanic to assess and to fix my car.

As it happened, I would not have to wait long. The first car that approached pulled up behind me. The driver must have realized that I was broken down and stopped to help.

“Good afternoon! I’m a car expert, what seems to be the problem?”

“My car just died,” I replied, encouraged that I was immediately setting off towards my Goals #1 and #2.

“Let’s see… Ah, you have an Acme Theta. These are much better than the Apex Omegas. Did you know that the center of gravity is much lower on these? They started doing that on the 2002 models, ever since Bart Duffey took over the design department,” reported the expert.

“So do you think that you could help me find out what is wrong?” I asked optimistically.

“It’s the power steering bearing flange. They had a lot of problems with those. They should have never started making them out of polymer,” he explained.

“Hmm, my steering was okay but the engine started running rough and…”

“Listen, I know a lot about these cars — I go to all of the car websites. I could probably rebuild a bearing flange if I wanted to, but I don’t have the tools for that yet,” he replied.

Just then, another car pulled up.

“Howdy, I’m a mechanic… hey, is that an Acme Theta? No wonder, they are always breaking down. Too bad you don’t have an Apex Omega. Everybody knows that they are better cars,” said the newly arrived helper.

Now experts number one and two became engaged in a heated debate about which car was better. One was touting customer satisfaction polls that he had read about somewhere. The other was bringing up safety factors that he knew all about from seeing something on a news report. They both seemed to have lots of impressive facts and footnotes about all things car-related but it was just raw information, none of it of any use to my situation. It was all facts and arguments that were about some other problem.

Around the time that I realized that these two experts were not going to help me with either Goal #1 or Goal #2, let alone even assess my problem, they both ran out of time and said that they had to both get to work at their respective jobs in the sales profession. They did promise to meet up with each other again so that they could settle their argument once and for all and prove to me how good or how bad my car model was.

 “I’m sure that someone will be along that can help though,” one of them offered.

I thanked them for their help — or rather their time — and watched them leave.

Just then, another car pulled up. This car had two people in it who said that they knew nothing about the mechanics of cars but thought that they could help somehow. I figured now was a good time to at least work on Goal #2 — that is maybe I could get my car off the road so that I wouldn’t get hit.

“You shouldn’t even be here anyway. How could someone drive so far from home in a car that they knew could break down at any time”, the driver said, “plus, people around these parts don’t take too kindly to out-of-towner’s nosin’ their way around out here.”

The other then chimed in, “Soo, an Acme Theta. These things are real gas guzzlers that really pollute. You must be one of those rich elitists who don’t care about the environment. You big-business loving cronies of the oil companies are all the same. You deserve to get hit by a car, it would send a strong message to…”

“Look,” I interrupted, “I really just need someone who can help me #1-get my car off the road and #2- fix it.”

By now, a crowd was starting to form around my car. Nothing attracts a crowd better than a crowd. As people passed by, they all decided to stop and offer their opinions and their facts. One asked for a show of hands of how many thought I should just abandon my car and get a bicycle instead – “they are good exercise.”

One said that cars are always breaking down and that I should just give up. Another suggested that it was really kind of my fault for not taking better care of my car. One, a sign painter, offered to paint up a sign for me — at a discount — to put up behind my car so that no one would hit it. Still another thought that a special committee should be formed to study the problem and the local politician even promised to push for legislation that would demand a full investigation. A lawyer offered to sue someone with no cost to me unless he wins. One woman told me that my car “didn’t even really break down.”

What was interesting to me was that everybody had an opinion about my problem, but nobody even really knew what my problem was. Never mind helping to solve it. No one even looked at my car or helped me push it off the road. In addition, as intense and passionate as everyone was at the scene, I knew that by tomorrow, everyone will have likely forgotten about me, my car, my problem, whatever it may have been.

There was no shortage of opinions, facts or positions though. It was much easier for the people to argue about things that they knew about–or thought that they knew about–than to study the actual problem and how to solve it. All of their effort was spent on things that were only vaguely related to the core issue at hand.

The final outcome — My car was eventually towed to a service station. It was quite an expensive repair, but I analyzed that although a high price was paid, it was worth it to me to get my car back on the road. Others may disagree with my decision to spend so much on my car, but if they disagree with me, let’s keep the discussion on-topic. We may ultimately disagree, but at least we focused on the problem and not on some ancillary point.


Statistics vs. The Truth

People love to throw around numbers and statistics when they try to make a point. Numbers suggest mathematics and impartial scientific study. Mathematics and scientific studies are the domain of smart people. Therefore, what better way to look like you have it all figured out than by merely giving numbers that you found somewhere? All the work is done for you and all of the critical thinking and analysis can be avoided. One problem however is that statistics may do a poor job of proving what is often the wrong point anyway.

Example 1 – The Distortion – 50% of marriages end in divorce!

People use this statistic to push whatever agenda may be aided by this statistic. Whether you are trying to say that the institution of marriage is hopeless, same-sex unions are good, same-sex unions are bad, religion has lost its effect — hey, you can use this for whatever argument you may need. Realize though that this statistic is not exactly correct.

 People look at a particular population and see that there were say, 100,000 weddings in the past year and there were 50,000 divorces in the same time frame. That’s 50%! But it is not exactly as it seems. Many of those 50,000 divorces could be from weddings that happened in prior years, so you are talking about two different pools of people. What if there were 50,000 weddings last year and 100,000 divorces? Does that mean that the divorce rate is 200%? It could be, if you needed to make that particular point for some cause you are pushing for. Another angle that could be argued here is that married people are much more likely to get divorced than non-married people.

Example 2 – The Self Evident Shocker – Studies show that 50% of all doctors in the U.S. graduated medical school in the lower half of their class!

No study is really needed here actually, it has been this way for years in any school. But you could use this to argue that the state of medical education – or statistical analysis – in this country is lackluster.

Example 3 – The Poll Results – 60% of the people think that we should withdraw all or some of the troops from Iraq. Only 16% think we should send more.

This from  a CNN poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation asking 1,025 adults nationwide. It is not clear how those people would know how many troops should be sent anywhere for anything, especially in light of this:

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Nov. 9-12, 2006. A poll of 1,479 adults nationwide found that 74% think that there is not a “Clear Plan” in Iraq.

I have my own question for these poll participants: How many troops are there in a squad? How many squads are in a platoon? How many people are needed to operate an M1A2 Abrams tank? How many troops do you need to staff a 2-person security post 24 hours a day? In addition, if you are ignorant of what the plan is for Iraq, how can you possibly start making staffing recommendations?

I shudder to realize that there are politicians and “leaders” who base foreign policy – as well as tactics – on the results of these polls. Please tell me that you use the vast resources of knowledge and experience that our military has in order to guide your position.

Yes, math and statistics are often used to further whatever agenda you may have. Sometimes, the numbers are simply wrong. Sometimes, they are correct but misleading. In so many cases though, numbers are simply used to avoid discussing the real issues. Statistics make a great footnote for the “Letter to the Editor” and give the appearance that research was conducted. They turn what could be a thoughtful discussion about a complex issue into over-simplified black-and-white. Further, they can be cleverly employed by those that seek to steer an argument away from one that cannot be won by critical thinking and analysis toward an argument that can be won by often meaningless numbers.

 Decisions should based not only on “facts”, but on the recommendations of those people who understand the context as well.

Don’t be clouded by the authoritative-looking math.

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